Thursday, December 25, 2008

All I Want For Christmas

When I was a kid, all I wanted for Christmas was toys. A tree with a boatload of wrapped gifts filled me with excitement. When I was a young adult, the shine started to wear off a bit, but I was still pretty happy with getting big ticket "toys" like a stereo or tech gadgets. As I entered my later 20's and 30's, I felt a hunger every year to return to the excitement I used to feel at getting and giving "stuff".

I'm pleased to say that the transition is complete and I don't have a desire to receive things at all anymore. I still have a desire to give, but I'm satisfied to do so in relatively small, but non-perfunctory ways. My choices are based one what I think people might enjoy but can't obtain for themselves easily (or at all), not on impressing with packaging style or price tag guesses.

This year, I did "receive". One of my students gave me pound cake. Another gave me a small bunch of flowers. Another gave me apples, another a giant butter pear, and yet another persimmons. My husband got wine, cookies, and chocolates from his students. My sister gave me much needed articles of clothing. It's nothing big, but it's more than I expected and as much as I could have wanted.

The only thing I really want at this time of year is more time with my husband, and that is what I'm going to get. Starting from tomorrow, he'll have 12 days off and we'll have the luxury of spending most of the day together during that time. I'm still working during some of the holiday, but by and large we'll have a plethora of hours together. Having time with the people you love is really the best gift. Getting over the materialistic part of Christmas helps you appreciate that.

I hope everyone has a really wonderful time with whatever free time they have this Christmas. :-)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Chicken or the Egg

When I was studying psychology, one of the points we discussed was whether or not biological responses followed psychological reactions or whether the psychological reactions were the result of biology. That is, when you are scared into a "fight or flight" reaction, do you first experience the release of adrenaline and then feel fear, or do you feel fear then the adrenaline is released?

At the time, I recall thinking that it didn't really matter all that much. I also thought that it was an odd question to ask as I was sure that feeling preceded neurochemical release. As I look back on the question, I realize that there may have been a deeper issue to explore. If biology precedes psychological responses, then our emotions and responses are mere slaves to our internal chemical processes. The fact that people often experience mood swings in accord with things like hormones and blood sugar levels definitely supports this idea.

On the other hand, I don't know that we can say we are slaves to our biology. As I sit here typing, I'm slowly being overtaken by post-meal sluggishness. I know my tired feeling is being set off by biology and I wonder to what extent I can reject that response and push my body and mind not to act on this all too common response to having recently eaten. Soldiers have been trained to effectively maintain their core body temperature in freezing water. They can suppress their need to shiver and keep their trunk warm so that they will not experience a slowing of their heart rate so rapidly. If we can "think" our way out of biological response, surely this would encourage the idea that our feelings and mental application are masters of biology rather than the other way around.

I wonder if, in the end, the entire question of which comes first is at its heart a debate over a mindset that reduces man to the sum of his chemistry or one that elevates him to master over his particular biological domain. One viewpoint renders us powerless and the other grants us a great deal of power over ourselves. What is much more interesting to me than which is true is what would motivate a particular person to embrace one theory or another. These days, I'm much more inclined to view us as capable of influencing our biology should we apply ourselves to doing so, particularly when it comes to mastering emotions and responses to stimuli.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas Baking 2008

Two finished bags in front of a bag of treats for my husband to take to work (he assembles his bags at work).


I'd apologize for the lack of updates if I didn't think everyone was just as busy as I and therefore not really missing the distraction of my posts. I've been on a baking treadmill over the last week and a half or so getting baking goods together as gifts for students.

Last year, the CH and I gave students a goodie bag with a variety of chocolates and peanut butter cookies. This cost quite a lot and I'm not sure that the students necessarily were keen on the chocolates anyway. They seemed to be far more impressed by the cookies. This year, we decided to go with bags of only homemade goodies both because we felt the students would enjoy them more and it costs about 1/3 of what buying a bunch of candy cost.

Because of this, I've been trying to streamline the baking process and string it out so that things are fresher. Instead of baking 6 dozen cookies and freezing the finished product, I made a double batch of the dough, split it into 6 discs and froze the dough. When we need more cookies, I thaw out the dough and bake up as many as needed for the following day. All in all, this is a labor saver and it also spares me one day of absolutely exhausting baking. One of the biggest drawbacks of of living in Japan is that the oven is so small that you can't get make many cookies at once. I can't even bake two trays at once because they won't bake properly.

What I'm saving time-wise on the peanut butter cookie front, I'm losing on the fact that 3 baked goods take more time than one. Well, "baked goods" isn't really quite right because one of the items is Rice Krispies treats. Yes, I know they are low rent and considered pretty nasty by a lot of people, but the truth is that the students really enjoy them. One of the CH's students liked them so much when she had them during a homestay that she special ordered boxes of the cereal so she could try to make them for herself in Japan. Unfortunately for her, they were spoiled by Japanese marshmallows (which are not make with gelatin like American ones so they don't lend the same texture or flavor to the Rice Krispies treats).

The third item is brownies. Tonight, I made the third pan of them and I think that should be the last of them, but there's still more need for pans of buttery molten marshmallow and another tub of peanut butter dough. We aren't giving the students that much per person (5 cookies, 1 brownie and 1 treat for the CH's students), but when you're doling things out to about 30 people, it really starts to add up. Anyway, I'm hoping to see some free time starting the last week of December and hopefully can get back to life as usual.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tiny Bouqet


One of my students surprised me today with a small, but extremely beautiful bouquet as a Christmas gift.


The colors are incredibly deep and lovely.

There are some tiny pine branches in with the flowers that give it a nice Christmas feel. It really brightens up my desk and I very much appreciate the student's thoughtfulness.

Monday, December 15, 2008

"Fomp"

Yesterday morning, one of my student was pecking at her electronic dictionary to find a translation for a particular concept or word and she showed me the result in the dictionary. The result was "fomp". I never heard of such a word so I checked at dictionary.com and it turned up no result. The urban dictionary has three results, but I'm pretty sure that none of them (particularly not the extremely disgusting last one) apply to the relationship between her grandmother and her family.

For years now, I've been telling Japanese people that they cannot trust their Japanese to English dictionaries and that the results they get have to be double-checked with an English only dictionary. In particular, I've encouraged them to check example sentences when looking up a word to check the proper context in which various words are used. For years now, I've been looked back at as if I were making up fairy tales. The students simply don't believe that their dictionaries, which are the finest technology major electronics companies offer, are more fallible than their teacher who is just some schmo who ended up teaching English in Japan.

I'm pretty sure that the three cornerstones of bad English in Japan are:
  • Inaccurate dictionaries and textbooks full of bad translations.
  • Japanese teachers of English who aren't even close to fluent and teach their students all of their mistakes.
  • The plethora of mangled Engrish and Japangrish which saturates the culture and makes people think that certain phrases are proper English use.
In regards to that last note, I used to see and read people repeating crap English used in big advertising campaigns. About 15 years ago, JR did a big advertising campaign where they wrote "traing" ("train" + "ing") to promote the idea of "let's travel by train" (because "ing" is used for gerunds). I started to get reports from students around that time with nouns that had "ing" added to the end of them, aping the expansive ad campaign. Another contamination by advertising I still experience to this day is "charm point". Students will ask what my "charm point" is as if this is a set concept everyone understands. What they really mean is "outstanding feature".

I guess that the mangled English is a two-edged sword. The presence of so much English (or "Engrish") provides a point of reference for students which increases their overall ability to understand and relate to English. On the other side though, breaking bad habits or the use of incorrect phrases, words and grammar is pretty much impossible. Once a Japanese high school teacher drills students to say things like, "I have ever been to (place)," it is completely beyond my magic teaching skills to break the student from using this incorrect phrasing.

Someone really should do something about the dictionaries though. There's really no excuse for that besides being too cheap or sloppy to get the information in there correctly.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Happy Birthday, Sharon

My sister was born on the 13th, which unfortunately subjected her to a lot of comments from parents and relatives when that date happened to fall on a Friday. We all know how Friday the 13th is supposed to be so unlucky. She was also born in December, which meant that the proximity of her birthday to Christmas meant people often didn't shop especially for her birthday. My mother would usually pull out an extra Christmas gift and give it to her early.

On the bright side, when your birthday is this close to the biggest holiday of the year, you can look forward to it because you'll get a week off from school in the near future. For me, my birthday was 3-5 days before school started so I never felt entirely great about its arrival.

My sister is 46 this year and I'm sure she wouldn't like me to remind her of it, but I'm glad she's been around for all of my life. The truth is that she has provided better stability and a closer familial bond than my parents ever did. These days we talk about 5 days a week, sometimes more, and I'm immensely grateful for the technology that allows us to have such a bond when we live on nearly opposite sides of the planet. I'm also immensely grateful that she's my sister and hope this is a special day for her because she deserves it. Happy birthday, Sharon, and all of my love to you.

Surrendering Control

Yesterday, one of my students showed up with a nasty welt across her right hand. It looked like she had a rather severe accident with a car door or raked her hand across something, but it was actually a long, nasty crescent-shaped burn. When I asked her how it happened, she said it had to do with oden. Oden is various vegetables and fish stuff floating in a boiling hot vat of smelly liquid which is often sold in convenience stores in open vats when it gets cold. I don't like it, but most people (even foreigners) love it.

An oden-related accident is no surprise because the places that sell it have to keep the liquid hot to keep all the airbourne bacteria falling into the open air boiling boxes at bay. I figured she probably tried to snarf it down too rapidly and spilled some on herself. The story was actually a little different.

She told me she safely transported her oden home and planned to eat it later by microwaving it. She also said that her dog, a bulldog, loved oden and that if she ate it while her dog was around, the dog would sit next to her as she ate and drool at her or bark to beg. So, she waited until her dog was asleep and microwaved her oden. Because she was trying to hurry and eat it as fast as possible so the dog wouldn't smell it and wake up and come over to beg, she yanked it out of the microwave and spilled it on her hand and burned herself badly. The dog woke up and she ended up feeding most of it to the dog anyway.

One could be flabbergasted at how a person could surrender control of their life to a dog in this way. I certainly would not try to gobble down a favored dish clandestinely to keep a pet from begging for it nor would I feed most of it to the pet when I failed, but I do think we all allow the expectations, wishes, and actions of others to control us. Sometimes this is a form of loving accomodation which is good for a relationship as surrendering control shows someone you care more about their needs than your own. I'm guessing this is why my student, who I think loves her dog more than her husband, did what she did. Sometimes though, we surrender control out of fear of the consequences if we do not or as a result of our own insecurity when it comes to asserting our needs. I know I've been guilty of both of those.

I told my student that it was a good thing that she didn't have any children. If the behavior of her dog was enough to have her caving in like this, I can only imagine the influence children might have on her.

Friday, December 12, 2008

1965 or 2008?

Awhile ago, the CH started asking his students a question about the world they'd prefer to live in. He asked his students if they would prefer to live in the social environment of 1965, where the roles of men and women were more clearly divided, or if they'd prefer to stick with the social situation of 2008. Unsurprisingly, most of the men chose 1965 and most of the women chose 2008. In 1965, men still operated in the world of lifetime employment while the women were at home supporting them as wives and mothers. It was a time when men were men and women were trapped in the limits society imposed upon them.

Most people feel that the world was a better place in their youth and older people often lament that people were more civilized back when. Personally, I don't have a sense that people were any better when I was younger. I think they're just obnoxious in a different way now compared to the past. I do believe there was a time which predated my birth by a fair amount of time when people were taught more rigid notions of social interaction and "manners" which discouraged them from indulging their emotions every time someone bumped into them or treated them rudely.

Some Americans have balked for quite some time at the idea of rules of manner. The main reason for this is that many such rules evolved as a means of showing deference to status in other cultures and we like to pretend we are all equals. One way to assert your equality is to not treat a person with false respect simply based on perceived status. Personally, I feel this has been a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Good manners are about treating others with the same level of consideration and kindness you'd like to be treated with, not showing that someone is owed some level of deference.

Growing up, I wasn't role-modeled any manners at all. Neither of my parents ever said "please" or "thank you" to me or my sister for anything, though they at times insisted that we do so. In fact, as an adult, I have never once received a word of gratitude for anything I have given or done for my parents. Every year, no matter what Christmas present I sent them, they always complained about it. If I sent coffee, it was the wrong kind. If I bought clothes, they didn't really need them or the style was lacking. If I sent candy, they really didn't want more sweets around. Eventually, I just gave up and relied on my sister's opinion that candy (I send See's) was good because my parents always ate it up and enjoyed it, even while they complained about having received it and never offered a word of gratitude.

Because I so rarely experienced good manners from my parents, and the children around me were cruel and obnoxious (as kids often are), I don't have some idealized sense that the world was a better place way back when. If I could choose between now and an era from the past, I think I'd be pretty indifferent to whatever the cultural landscape was regarding how people treated one another or the conditions we live in. Grudgingly, I'd have to say that we probably are better off now world-wide as a species than we have been for quite some time in terms of material quality of living and the potential to control health, food supply, and energy resources.

While there are a lot of problems with resource management and the environment, our ability to deal with them is much greater than ever before. Yes, people are starving and suffering all over the world in various places, but that was happening at every stage of human history. The difference now is that we are more aware of it than before. It used to be that people died from disease, war and starvation somewhere else on the globe and we had no idea what was going on. Now, we know every detail and have the technology to intervene in at least some cases. So, if I could choose any year or time to live in, I guess I'd choose now, but mainly because I can't find it in myself to idealize the past, no matter how much I'd like to be able to do so.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Christmas Decorations 2008

The wooden "Merry Christmas" sign was a present from my husband a long time ago as was the clear candy dish (and the almond roca wrapped in gold in the dish). He also procured the Simpsons Christmas mugs. The acorn candles actually came from my brother-in-law in more cordial days.


Note: Any picture can be seen in a larger version by clicking on it.

Every year around this time, the web is full of pictures of elegantly appointed decorations in homes that resemble none that I have ever stepped foot in. That's not to say that such homes do not exist. I'm sure they do belong to people who have figured out a way to live life in perfectly color coordinated, immaculate, perfectly lit houses that do not require trash cans, power outlets, cables, cords, or most common electronic household items. I'm sure of the latter because those things are always absent from those gorgeous houses with their perfect holiday decor.

This paper tree was a gift from my friend the wombat stuffer last year. He sent it to me along with a bunch of other goodies after listening to me complain for ages about all the things I didn't or couldn't have in Japan. My students think the tree is very cute. I think it's a wonderful reminder of friendship.

So, every year, I drag out my box of ragtag, hodgepodge, mixed up Christmas decorations and attempt to adorn my apartment in an aesthetically pleasing manner. They may not look perfect, but almost all of them are reminders of thoughtfulness, consideration, generosity and kindness on the part of others.

The gold candles and the Santa candle holder were gifts from the CH. The gold candles smell wonderful, like holly and berries. They're the last of huge box of gorgeous candles the CH got me and I refuse to burn them because I want to remember their scent and the larger gift they came with. The snowman between the candles were from the wombat stuffer. It reminds me of Calvin & Hobbes as well as my good friend the stuffer.

So, my decorations may not be perfect or impressive, but they make me happy, and they put me in the right spirit.

The round tree candle holder was also from the CH. I love candles. It's a beautiful holder, but you can't really tell from this picture. The Skull plushie gets a blue Santa cap at this time of year.

Today, I went out and bought bags for student baked goodies offerings this year. I also mixed up a huge quantity of peanut butter cookie dough and froze discs of it for (near) future cookie making.

The CH gave me the plates, holders, candles and wooden NOEL train a long time ago. The lights are actually new. I bought them from Amazon Japan and didn't realize they were musical lights. Fortunately, there's a switch to turn off the music.

In past years, I've often waited for the spirit to motivate me, but this year I decided to make make the spirit on my own. I'm hoping it sticks with me for the duration.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Absolutely Inauthentic Chicken Pulao


One of my favorite Indian dishes is chicken biryani. Prior to coming to Japan, I had never sampled Indian food because I was born in a rural area and there were no ethnic restaurants in the area during most of the time I lived there. In fact, there wasn't even a Chinese place within reasonable distance of my home until a few years before I moved to California and married.

I've had biryani at several Indian places in Japan and though it is often different, it's always been good. Unfortunately, it is also quite expensive, so I rarely have it from restaurants these days. Now that my income is about 1/3 of what it was when I worked full-time, I have to be mindful of these things.

I've been trying to create something close to the biryani I enjoyed at restaurants for some time and have been messing around with a chicken pulao recipe on Quick Indian Cooking for months and months trying to get it to come out somewhere in the neighborhood of the tasty dishes I've had from the kitchens of actual Indian cooks. I made the recipe pretty much as it was given at first, but I think none of the spices I can buy locally are fresh or potent enough to really do a good job. I've tinkered with it and finally come up with something I believe works with the quality and type of spices one can buy in Tokyo. By the way, the reason this is pulao and not biryani is that the rice is cooked with everything else. In biryani, it is cooked separately. If you're interested in authentic Indian cuisine, then I strongly recommend Quick Indian Cooking. The recipes are excellent and easy.

My recipe is quite good, though it certainly is not easy. This is probably the 7th or 8th time I've made this dish and this is the last version. I'm quite pleased with it. The tomato paste really brought something to it and I think this was the best mix of spices considering my limits in terms of freshness and options.

Absolutely Inauthentic Chicken Pulao

for marinade and meat:
  • 2 cups low fat yogurt
  • 1/4 inch fresh ginger
  • 2 small garlic cloves (or 1 big fat one)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. coarse black pepper
  • 2 large raw chicken breasts (1/2 breasts, actually) cut into bite-size pieces
for cooking:
  • 1/4 inch fresh ginger
  • 2 small cloves garlic (or 1 big fat one)
  • 1 cinnamon stick broken into 4 pieces
  • 1.5 star anise (mine are fragmented such that all the points are broken off, so about 8 "tips")
  • 2 small bay leaves (or 1 large one - though I prefer 2 small)
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste (in Japan, you can buy this in individual packets with 1 tbsp. in each)
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp. turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. hot garam masala (use regular if you're sensitive to hot spices)
  • salt to taste
  • 2 large thinly sliced onions (or 3 small ones)
  • 2 cups uncooked rice
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • vegetable oil (any unflavored oil) or ghee (clarified butter) as needed (I used Canola oil - but I bet ghee would be tastier and give it that restaurant greasiness)
  • 1 very small diced green pepper (optional)
  • cashews (optional, as garnish)
Marinade instructions:
Put the yogurt into a bowl with a lid. Add the salt and pepper. Blitz all of the garlic and ginger in a small bowl food processor (or mince the garlic and grate the ginger). Add half of the ginger and garlic to the marinade and set the other half aside to use in cooking. Whisk the spices into the yogurt. Add the chicken, cover with lid, and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for 2 hours to overnight.

Cooking instructions:
Add about 1-2 tbsp. oil to cover the bottom of a large, deep skillet. Heat the oil over medium-high heat then fry the bay leaves, cardamom pods, star anise, cumin seeds and cinnamon stick pieces until they become fragrant. Create a little free space in the pan and add the ginger and garlic that you previously set aside. Fry the fresh spices until they are aromatic and lightly brown. Be careful not to burn any of the spices. If they start to cook too quickly, turn down the heat.

Add the sliced onions to the spices and stir. Cook the onions until they are golden brown and translucent. They should reduce in size to about half their original volume as you cook. If you want green peppers, add the diced peppers and cook them about halfway through the cooking of the onions. The peppers don't have to be soft, but they should be a little wilted before you move on to adding the chicken.

Push all of the vegetables and spices to one side of the pan. Move the pan off center on the burner such that the vegetables and spices aren't getting much of the main heat from where they have been pushed to the side. Add the chicken and yogurt marinade to the empty side of the pan. Stir the turmeric into the yogurt/chicken mixture. Cook with medium to high heat until slightly browned. A lot of the moisture from the yogurt will boil off, but all of it does not have to. Add the chicken stock, hot garam masala, and tomato paste. Stir these in gently and carefully until they are dissolved. Allow this to simmer for at least 15 minutes, longer is okay, but if too much liquid boils off, you'll need to add in some water to make sure there is enough moisture for cooking the rice.

Add the uncooked rice, stir to distribute the rice evenly and cook over medium heat until it just starts to bubble. Cover the pan and turn the heat down as low as possible while still allowing the dish to simmer. Allow to cook until most of the water is absorbed and the rice is tender. This should take around 40 minutes, but it depends on the kind of rice you use and the type of pan. You'll have to test the rice for doneness by tasting it or cutting it with a fork.

Note: You can salt this at any stage of the cooking or wait and add salt when you eat it. In my experience, it will need to be salted again at some point. The salt from the marinade will not be enough.

For serving, I usually take tongs or chopsticks and pick out all of the bits of whole spices just so we don't have to take them out as we eat or don't accidentally bite into a bit of star anise or a cardamom pod. Also, I don't want stronger spices permeating the finished dish in select spots (esp. the cinnamon) when the leftovers are stored in the refrigerator so I like to get them out before storing.

I think this would also be good if about a handful of raisins were added at the same time as the rice, but my husband doesn't like raisins in these types of dishes so I've never tried it (though all of the biryani I've ever had in restaurants has included raisins). Also, the pictured version does not have green peppers in it, but I have used green pepper in this dish before. It's good, but you have to be careful not to overdo it or the green pepper flavor will be too strong and dominate the dish.

Finally, keep in mind that my spices are crap. I think they're old because most of them are not typical in Japanese cuisine and spend a lot of time on store shelves before being sold. If you are using better quality spices, you may need to scale back to avoid making things too intense.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cheating

Sometimes I read bulletin boards devoted to the interests of women. One group of such boards is located at iVillage. The topics of greatest interest to me are the ones that deal with relationships. Lately, I've been looking into a topic that the CH and I have discussed between ourselves as well as with students. That topic is "emotional affairs."

For the rare reader (of course, all of my readers are pretty "rare" in that there aren't that many of them) who doesn't know what an emotional affair is, it's when two people are in love, but do not physically consummate their relationship with illicit sexual congress. With the potential to contact strangers from every hemisphere on the globe as well as friends and acquaintances from down the block through Internet-based methods, more people are probably having emotional affairs than ever before.

Most of the time, these relationships consist of people having intense conversations, flirtatious text exchanges, and sharing deep levels of emotional intimacy. Often, the depth of relationship is measured by information shared with the "other man/woman" that cannot be shared with one's spouse. The "other" extracts satisfaction from knowing they are chosen to share in secrets to which the spouse is denied access as well as the recipient of compliments and appealing innuendo.

On the message boards, people will ask if what they are doing is cheating because it is not physical or they ask if they are justified in their actions because their spouse is failing to fulfill a need. The latter is often the rationale for actual physical affairs. That is, if a person fails to meet the sexual needs of his or her partner, the deprived spouse justifies an affair by citing that failure as the motive for cheating.

My views of relationships in terms of how other people conduct them are pretty broad. My feeling is that all commitments have to be defined by those who are taking part in them. If people want to have "open marriages" where they are free to engage in sexual behavior with others, that's fine as long as they both freely embrace the idea and all latitudes are applied equally. I would say the same applies to emotional affairs or whatever else people want to do.

The only thing I think is out of bounds in any relationship, is hiding a relationship of any kind with a third party from your partner. If you hide it, then you are doing so because you know that you're operating outside of the concept of your commitment to the relationship that the two of you decided upon or that you both generally feel is the norm for your culture. One of the reasons why I have no problems with my husband's friendships with other women, including an ex-girlfriend whom he was once deeply in love with, is that no aspect is ever hidden from me. Of course, I also trust him completely, but that trust is confirmed and upheld by the transparency with which he conducts other relationships.

I believe cheating is the ultimate act of selfishness and cowardice. In all but a very few rare cases, people cheat in order to keep their cake nice and safe which having a snack on the side. If you're unhappy in your relationship, you have three choices. One is that you work on the aspects of your relationship that make you unhappy. Two is that you formally break up or divorce. Three is that you recognize the shortcomings of your relationship in meeting your needs and be upfront with your spouse about your need to go outside your shared concept of your commitment to one another and seek satisfaction. The third option is rarely exercised, but I believe that if you feel you have to grant yourself the latitude to have an affair (emotional or otherwise) to satisfy yourself, then you have to offer your spouse that same possible avenue of satisfaction. The main reason people don't pursue these options and decide to have secret affairs is that they're trying to selfishly have everything for themselves - faithful, supportive spouse and torrid affair with the other man/woman.

While I accept any sort of open relationship among other people, I couldn't accept such a thing myself because that isn't the sort of concept the CH and I share. We're both of the mind that mind, body, and soul are shared to the extent possible between us. However, our deep devotion and commitment to sharing as much as possible has been the driving force behind my being open-minded about how other people conduct their relationships. I realize that the intensity of our bond is unusual and odd compared to most people's relationships. In fact, I've been made aware on multiple occasions that our devotion is pretty freakishly intense. If we can be unconventional, then I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't say it was okay for other people have whatever arrangements suit them. However, I don't think many relationships are served favorably by deception, double standards, or lying.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Adventures in "New" Used Furniture

There's a style of low profile office chair which I ran across at a second-hand items shop about 6 months ago. It was black and only about 3000 yen (about $30) and looked like it'd suit the CH's need for a replacement chair at his office. Unfortunately, my rickety old chair, which I had repaired 3 times and extended the life of for another year and a half, finally gave up the ghost and I ended up with the chair intended for my husband. (He was in need of a new chair because his company's president replaced everyone's comfortable chair with nicer looking, but very uncomfortable chairs).

Since that time, I've been checking the same shop every time I ride my bicycle past it hoping that another one would show up. This particular type of chair is well-suited to Japanese apartments because it is light and has a low back so it doesn't seem so large in a small space. It's also wider and has good lower back support and is more comfortable than most conventional office chairs.

My new chair, restored to working condition.

Well, today was the day another one of these chairs showed up. The odd thing was that it wasn't there when I rode past it to the supermarket, but it was there 10 minutes later on my way back home. This one only cost 1890 yen (about $18) so it was a steal at that price. The only bad point was that this one is red and showed a bit more wear and tear. It's a little dingy, but I figured I could reupholster it. My husband can take the black one to his office and I'll use the red one.

So, that would be all well and good if that was the end of the story. Of course, then this wouldn't be an "adventure". The used items shop is about a 7-minute walk from my apartment and charges for delivery so I decided to just push the bike I was on with my right hand and drag the chair along the sidewalk with my left hand. It was noisy, and a little troublesome, especially with my bad back, but I got it home and was very pleased.

I put my groceries away, chatted with my sister a bit on Skype, and then decided to try out the chair. When I sat in it, it leaned forward any time I did. It was as if it was hinged. I turned it over and saw that two of the four bolts were missing. The front ones were there but very loose, and the ones from the back were gone. Given how loose the ones in the front were, my guess was that they were shaken out during the journey rather than absent all along.

The main problem with losing the screws is that the base of the chair is very thin so you can't replace them easily with other bolts. They'd have to be exactly the right length and width. Also, Tokyo is not exactly overflowing with hardware shops with a plethora of bolts for every need. In fact, I have no idea where to find a specific size bolt. Given the difficulties in replacing them, I though the best course of action was to retrace my steps and hope to find them.

Now, if I lived in the isolated countryside or in some quiet suburb, this wouldn't be a big deal, but this is Tokyo. There are people and cars everywhere. To add more fun to finding the lost screws, ginkgo leaves are all over the ground and blowing around. That means there are chances that they could be covered, swept up by the ever vigilant shop keepers sweeping several times a day in front of their stores, or ran over by a car. Yeah, I crossed a major street (Ome Kaido Avenue) full of traffic on my way home.

Still, I gamely retraced my steps and found one of the screws, sans its nut, at the curb where I crossed the street. I was actually surprised to find one at all and pocketed it. When the light changed, I crossed the street carefully scanning the crosswalk. However, I figured I'd be screwed if one fell in the street because tons of cars drive over the intersection every minute. It could be thrown, crushed, or stuck in some one's tire if it happened to fall on the crosswalk.

After walking all the way back to the shop, I came up empty on the second screw and decided I'd give up after one more pass over the crosswalk. Strangely enough, I found it lying in the middle of the street undamaged and with its nut intact. I must say that I felt really lucky to recover them under the circumstances.

Of course, my entire experience was two parts luck (finding the chair, then finding both lost screws) and one part bad luck (the loose screws). I can't believe that the people who assembled the chair were so careless as to leave the screws so loose that simply pulling it along the sidewalk for 3 minutes made them fall out. I guess it could have been worse. All 4 of them could have fallen out and the chair could have fallen apart before I got it home.

Note: This chair is obviously the Stockholm office chair sold by Walmart in the U.S. There are no Walmarts in Japan so I have no idea where this came from. I've never seen one like it in any shop. If anyone else knows where these can be bought in Japan, I'd appreciate knowing. I did find a Japanese version of this style of chair called a "Roco desk chair" (ロコデスクチェアー), but it's not the same exactly, though it still has the appealing low profile style.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Faith

Most people think of faith as something you have in a deity. However, faith applies to all areas of our lives. One can have faith in other people, in the future, nature or in technology. We can even have faith in our routines and the routines of others who interact with us in our daily lives. More often than not, we don't even think about our faith in such things as long as it isn't shattered by some event. The lack of faith in many of the aforementioned things, incidentally, results in cynicism.

For a person who has grown up under far less than optimal circumstances (i.e., me), sometimes it's very difficult to have faith in anything. Lately, I've been trying to build faith in some things in order to calm my all too frequent fears about the future. One of the things I want to have faith in is the idea that my financial life is going to be fine. When you grow up poor, it's easy to fear financial ruin, especially when your parents were constantly living at the brink of ruin and made no effort to hide their anxiety about money when you were too young to rationalize that anxiety and could only internalize it on a pure emotional level.

Since the nature of my work situation is unpredictable, I have to actively work at keeping my faith in financial security alive. I try to boost this idea with an underlying faith in two other things. One is that karma will eventually repay me for the kindness and generosity that I extend to others. The other, much greater faith I'm trying to nurture is in the idea that there is "enough" work, money, opportunity, etc. for everyone and that, if one does not try and grab more than one's necessary share of such things, these things will naturally flow one's way. I try to see jobs as a river that sometimes flows hard and strong my way and sometimes weak and slow, but I want to have faith that there will never be less than I need. However, I also have to be careful not to confuse what I "need" with what I "want".

Recently, I referred someone to my former company who I knew without a shred of doubt would be good at the job. Before making this referral, I had the nagging idea that doing so might end up resulting in my getting less freelance work because I had benefited in the past from the fact that my successors had been troublesome employees. However, the person I was referring deserved the security and my former boss deserved to work with someone who I knew would be a delight to work with. Initially, it looked as if setting aside my fears and doing "the right thing" was also going to end up rewarding me as I was told I'd be asked to do a lot more work than usual. In fact, one of the Japanese staff members and my former boss came by my apartment and this appeal was made in person.

Over the last several days, changes to the plan have been made due to the ambitions of a particular Japanese staff member. Most, if not all, of the work that seemed to be on the horizon is evaporating rapidly and it is somewhat depressing. To cope with this (very likely) letdown, I've been trying to convince myself that I may have merely wanted this work rather than needed it and that things are coming together as they are to make sure more important needs than mine are being met. That is, possibly the new staff that were hired needed the jobs they're getting more than I needed the extra income. Still, my faith that good acts go rewarded and in the ebb and flow of that river of opportunity have been rattled a bit. However, I was incapable of making any other choice. My values would not allow me to protect my own interests at the expense of another and I still have faith that those who do so ultimately do not prosper.

Sometimes I wonder if my attitude about taking as much as I need rather than as much as I want and making the choices which are "right" rather than selfish is what separates me from people who society views as truly successful. That is, if I were the type of person who protected my own interests first and foremost, I might have been wealthier and/or risen to a higher position in my work. I'm sure that one element of ambition, besides a need for status and the approval of others, is a certain drive which compels you to get as much as you can, even when it is far more than you actually need.

The CH has often said that we should live our lives bearing in mind what the world would be like if everyone lived the way that we do. If everyone grabbed as much work as possible so they could be a little more financially comfortable and others had less opportunity than they needed because of that person's desire, then the world would be an imbalanced place. Of course, this applies to all thing from material possessions to food to energy to work. When we take what we need rather than what we want, we leave more for others to take what they need as well. If everyone lived that way, I'm sure the world would be a better place. I have pretty solid faith in that idea.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Divorce Calculator

Via Digg (I know, I shouldn't be looking at Digg), I came across a link to a divorce calculator. The calculator uses census data to determine the likelihood that people who share the same background, characteristics and history as you will divorce. I guess the idea is to shake people out of the lala-land mindset they tend to have when they marry. After all, no one ever marries thinking that divorce is likely... at least they don't if they're sane.

While I'm sure people will say everyone feels they are an exception, I'm certain I will never divorce. The CH and I are just too compatible and into each other to ever part. Hell, I hate it when he has to leave the house for work and we're apart for hours. I'm not even very happy with the fact that he has to leave the room to go to the bathroom sometimes. ;-) I'm probably the only person in Japan who feels one of the "up" sides to living in a tiny apartment is that I can see and talk to my husband almost all the time when he's home because neither of us has any privacy.

At any rate, the interesting thing about these calculators isn't so much that they tell you the chance that you will divorce, but rather how changing a few variables effects the outcome. The stats that are used are:
  1. gender (Female)
  2. whether or not you have children (if you are female) (No)
  3. the year you married (1989)
  4. your education (university graduate)
  5. your age when you married (24)
  6. how long you've been married (19 years)
For a person in my situation, the chances of divorce are 32%. However, if you answer "yes" to the children question but leave all of the other stats the same, the chance of divorce drops to 23%. This would seem to point to the idea that women would divorce more often if they didn't have kids. If I leave all the stats the same as my original information, but lower the educational level to "high school graduate", the chances increase to 39%. The biggest difference though comes if I, again leaving all the stats the same, lower the age of marriage to 22 or younger. If I do that, the chances shoot up to 66%

I did truthful stats for my husband and it said his chances are 22%. I'm guessing this is mainly because he's 2 years older than I and the older one marries, the less likely it seems one might divorce. When I increased the age (for a male with his stats) to marriage after 33, the chances of divorce dropped to 12%.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn't met the CH. I'm guessing there's a decent chance I might have ended up divorced since that seems to be what has happened to about 1/3 of women in my shoes. There are two things of which I'm absolutely certain that can be said about my life if I hadn't met my husband. One is that I never would have ended up living in Japan. The other is that I never would have known such happiness with someone else. Of course, fact 1 has had no effect on fact 2, but both are the direct result of having met the CH.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pain

If you follow any blog for any period of time, you'll see that the frequency of posts sometimes drop off and then the excuses start popping up. I'm not one for offering such excuses because I don't feel obliged in any way to keep blogging. The fact of the matter is that I've often had things to say as of late, but have felt unable to say them. I offer an explanation of the situation not as an excuse, but rather as a bookmark in my personal history to tell myself what has been going on.

As of late, I've been experiencing more issues with my back than I had been and it's been draining my energy. Unless you've lived with pain day-in and day-out for years, you can't imagine the toll it can take on your ability to live a full life. Enduring pain, even when it's low-grade or bearable, taxes you in ways those who have not been in such a situation can't imagine.

Imagine a normal person's daily stamina as a fully inflated tire that loses air as the day goes on and refills to full capacity each morning after a night's rest. A person who is in pain everyday not only loses air at a faster rate, but finds that the tire never fully inflates no matter how much rest they get. This is because the pain represents a few extra holes allowing air to escape which make full inflation impossible no matter how hard you try to pump air into it.

As of late, I've felt like my tire has been near flat all the time and it's been difficult to raise the energy to type out my thoughts. It just feels like it's not worth the expenditure in effort when I have other things to do which are more immediate. Hopefully, this will pass and I'll be back to normal soon. One can hope.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pronunciation Matters

When you're teaching a foreign language, explaining why pronouncing a word correctly is important is often a rather abstract concept for students. Often, they think you're being overly fussy or pedantic. The truth is that this impression is not always a false one. I've heard teachers who are from other countries go out of their way to correct an accent because it represents the pronunciation of native speakers from another country. Particularly, a lot of British people want to "correct" North American accents when the student's speech patterns would be comprehended just fine anywhere in the world.

My feeling has always been that, as long as what you say can be understood, it doesn't matter if its the pronunciation a native speaker would use. However, sometimes it's very important to get it straight so that you are not a laughing stock. If one ever needed a more perfect example of this, one need only turn to the very well known (amongst expatriates) Japanese Self Defense Force Navy commercial:



The words on the screen are telling you what they mean to say, but what you hear if you're not reading along is "semen sip for love." Seeing a bunch of dancing, prancing sailors say "semen sip for love," does not conjure up the intended image of peace-loving protectors so much as gay sailors who enjoy nothing more than some round robin acts of fellatio.

So, if you ever need to prove how important it is to get the pronunciation of words correct, you can just show this video to the students and explain the meaning a native speaker is going to get.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Chances Are Very High

There was a story recently in the Japanese news about a 15-year old girl who stabbed her father to death. The papers reported that she was scolded by her mother for poor grades and then stabbed her father "in the chest and other places". The girl was sentenced to 4 years in a reform school for her crime.

In response to this news, a few foreign commenters speculated that there was more to the story than was being offered. One person noted that it didn't make sense for a girl to commit murder over being yelled at for bad grades. Personally, I think it's also odd that it was the mother who reportedly yelled at her but the father who was killed. Also, the vague wording of the details of the crime, particularly the "other places", got someone speculating that those places might be indicative of something inappropriate going on between the father and daughter. In essence, he speculated that the motive for the murder may have been molestation. This speculation caused an uproar among other commenters who felt that this way off base and came out of thin air.

The speculation that she may have been molested and it was not reported is not out of line for Japan. People who disagreed with the proponents of the theory that this dark bit of data was hidden said that it would have come out because he was dead and there was no reason to hide it. This is Western thinking. In Japan, the opposite is often true. The thinking is usually that, if the person is dead, there is no reason to reveal it.

I asked some students about this to get their opinions and they all told me that Japanese papers do not like to speak ill of the dead. One of my older, more experienced students told me that he felt that chances were very high that newspapers "self-censored" frequently and that many facts were missing in cases where it'd be embarrassing to the family of the deceased or appear that the memory of the dead person was being disrespected.

The way death affects criminal cases is very different in Japan than in the U.S. as well. Often, crimes committed by a person who commits suicide will end an investigation into a particular crime. That is, if a man embezzles money and he had associates involved in that crime, his death by his own hand will end all investigation. The feeling is that justice is satisfied when he chooses to take the ultimate responsibility. In other words, he liberates his compatriots from paying for their crimes with his actions and spares his family further embarrassment.

So, between a desire not to speak ill of the dead and the crimes of the deceased ceasing to be an issue, it wouldn't be a huge shock if the girl who murdered her father was molested, but the fact remained hidden by the press. His death closed the book on any crime he committed and not speaking ill of him would keep the lid on anything that smacked of speaking poorly of him. I don't know if the girl was molested, had a family problem which was not revealed, or was mentally ill. However, I do know that the truth is unlikely to ever be known and that you can't apply Western thought processes to how the information is offered. This is part of how people come to misunderstand Japan and Japanese culture. You can view it through Western eyes using Western logic, but you're going to see a distortion.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

It's Okay to Bitch, But Not to Praise

Nearly two decades ago when I was working at Nova, I worked with a lot of teachers from a variety of countries. Near the end of my first year, a couple in their 30's from Canada started working there. Both of them held Master's degrees and were pretty smart people so I was surprised that they'd settle for work at the likes of Nova. This was before the teaching bubble burst and jobs became scarce and lower paying, though it was during the start of the slow ride downward for teachers in Japan.

At that point in time, I had only been with the CH for about two years in person and was extremely hungry to spend as much free time with him as possible... which is actually not appreciably different from now, but that's rather beside the point. At any rate, when we sat around the teacher's lounge area and talked about what we wanted to do, I would remark on occasion about how I preferred to spend as much time as possible with my cute little husband. While I did not remark on this to the female half of the married Canadian couple (who I believe was named Angela) probably overheard me talking to other people about the CH on occasion.

At one point, somehow my attitude toward the CH came up when she was taking part in a group chat and I showed my usual restraint in enthusiasm toward him, which is to say little to none. Well, that's an exaggeration. I do try to keep my remarks within socially acceptable boundaries in person, though I am pretty straightforward and don't go out of my way to hide the fact that my marriage is a very happy one if there is a topic at hand which may include something related to my relationship with my CH. At any rate, I said something, and Angela snapped back nastily saying something about how we all didn't have to spend as much time as possible with our husbands.

Considering the fact that I rarely or never spoke with her because she disliked Americans on principle, I felt her response was pretty out of line. It's not like I was "over sharing" with her. In fact, I'd never directly shared anything at all with her, but, even if I did, I'm not sure why my happiness ought to be so antagonistic toward her that she'd find it necessary to lash out at me.

Angela approved of British folks on principle and buddied up to them before teachers of all other nationalities. I think the pecking order was something like: U.K., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Americans (but only if she held her nose near one). Since she wanted to be BFF ("best friends forever") with any Brit on the premises, she confided in my best friend at the time who happened to be from England. Angela told my friend that her husband was seeking an "open relationship" now that he'd spent some time in Japan and was finding that many delicate flowers were willing to open up to him. Their marriage was stressed because she didn't have a desire to stray and was angry about his attitude. In the end, she went back to Canada alone and I transferred to another branch of Nova in Kichijoji so I don't know if her husband went about pollinating all the blossoms on offer or if he kept it in his pants while his wife was an ocean away.

When I started working at my former office, I encountered another bitter woman who grew irrationally angry at me for my attitude toward my husband. This woman was American and married to a Japanese man. She hated living in Japan and felt trapped here because her husband couldn't work in the U.S. and make a decent living and she had no appreciable skills for getting work back home. She almost never spoke about her husband and was vague when anyone made polite smalltalk which involved asking her about him (e.g., what his job was). She also took a dislike to me because I was pretty gung-ho to expand my skills on the job in my down time and she preferred to read magazines and write letters in hers and she felt I was attempting to show her up. I must say that it was a pretty good indication of her self-preoccupation if she thought I spent hours cultivating skills just to make her look bad rather than doing something of use and interest to me. Between her growing resentment in my interest in gaining skills on the job and dislike of my mentioning anything about my personal life, the hostility reached a point where she simply stopped speaking to me altogether.

After those two memorable experiences with women who were openly snotty with me for being so openly happy with my husband, I realized a few things. First and foremost, unhappy people hate to be around someone who isn't experiencing the same type of unhappiness as they are. Misery loves company, but moreso if that company is miserable about the same things as it. The second thing I realized is that people are open-minded and sympathetic about any complaints people have about their spouses (at least up to a point). They can bitch about how lazy, selfish, stubborn, childish, etc. a spouse is and people will not think less of them unless they do it too often or too irrationally. However, they are far less tolerant or accepting of praise of one's spouse.

Sometimes we hear that many developed cultures are cultures of whiners and complainers. I think that the lack of social acceptance and, indeed, frequent social censure of people who are talking about their happiness is part of cultivating cultures full of people who focus excessively on the negative in their lives. It's cool to sneer, be snide, or deride people and everyone is more than happy to jump on the bandwagon for a bitch session (especially about spouses), but it's trite, childish, and possibly seen as bragging to focus on the positive. We get the cultures full of the types of people we earn through our actions.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Misplaced Anger

Several days ago, one of my students related a story to me which had a familiar sense to it. Though she's Japanese, her experience transcended cultural boundaries and emphasized for me how some human responses are a common part of our psychology.

She told me that she had had a car accident where her car had been side-swiped by another car. The accident was entirely the fault of the other driver and he admitted it. On that day and at that time, she hadn't planned on being out driving some place. She told me she had a sense that something might happen if she did so, but also she had other plans for her time which included studying English. The reason she was driving was that her husband had an appointment and insisted that she drive him to it. She wanted him to take a cab because the appointment was a professional one and he could write it off anyway, but he complained about the timing and how a cab may not pick him up in time to get him to the appointment on time.

When the accident occurred, my student was upset by what happened, but she was angry at her husband, not the man who hit her car. She blamed him for the accident because he pushed her to drive him. While it is certainly true that she wouldn't have had the accident if she hadn't been driving, it's not as if her husband was responsible for what happened, nor could he have reasonably expected such a thing might occur. What she was really angry about, and the accident provided her with an opportunity to focus and express that anger, was that her husband had pressured her to do something she didn't want to do. She felt she couldn't reasonably refuse his request or complain about it so she didn't show her frustration with him until the accident provided a better excuse to be mad.

This pattern is one I'm acquainted with mainly as a victim and also as the "abuser", but far less as the latter than the former. My mother was the queen of misplaced and displaced anger. Any time she grew frustrated or angry with one thing in her life, she picked a convenient target and let loose with verbal abuse. If she was late, it wasn't because she had misplaced her purse and wasted time finding it, but because she had to "waste" time rounding up us kids and getting us in the car. Never mind that we were ready to go before her and sitting around waiting for her to locate her carelessly placed handbag and eventually wandered back to our rooms to play with something while we waited for her to be ready. As the years went by, my mother's logical connections for misplaced anger became increasingly far removed and ridiculous, but the pattern of always finding a way to blame someone else when she was frustrated by the normal and unpredictable ebb and flow of daily life remained firmly in place.

When the CH and I first got married, I'm sure I did a similar thing where I blamed him because he made a choice, recommendation, or asserted his preference and I followed his lead and something bad happened. I don't recall any specific instances of doing so, but given the nature of these things, it would be no surprise if it happened on multiple occasions. Some time in the first five to ten years or so of marriage, either with his feedback or on my own, I realized how wrong this was and made a conscious effort to feel my anger and frustration and even express them in various ways, but not to use the CH as a target. At the very least, if I'm going to be upset, I'm going to be upset for the "right" reasons and not blame him for an unpredictable consequence. Of course, it helps that the CH does not force his choices upon me or attempt to coerce me into doing things I don't want to do.

I consider it quite the blessing that I no longer am the frequent victim of misplaced anger now that I live away from my family. The CH, and this is one of the many reasons I praise him so highly all of the time, is not prone to anger, let alone getting angry with me for something which isn't my fault. In fact, it is so rare that he shows anything approaching actual anger that it's always a great shock to me when I see such a look on his face. I'm sure that his calm nature has paved the way for me doing a much better job of controlling my anger and becoming angry less often and I'm immensely grateful.

When I consider my upbringing and my married life, I'm profoundly struck by how the people you live with and who interact with you on a regular basis can bring out the worst or the best in you through their behaviors. My mother role modeled a lot of bad behavior for me which I brought to my marriage. Fortunately, the combination of my husband's behavior and my insight and self-reflection allowed me to overcome that and grow in a better direction.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pop Culture Icons

This morning, I ran across a bit of the new Star Trek movie trailer on 109.com. (Edit: There's a better version here.) You don't have to be a geek to like it, but it doesn't hurt. One of the things that struck me about the trailer was that the scenes of Kirk and Spock as kids were refreshing to see. The series has been around long enough that the characters have become iconic. In fact, they may actually be better known internationally than most iconic superhero characters, with the exception of Batman. Everyone who has been exposed to American entertainment culture knows the Batman, and everyone wants to be him. ;-) If you search YouTube, you can find some knock-off versions of the original Star Trek made by other countries. Some of them are rather hilarious, but it's clear that even those who never saw the original show know the concept from their own bastardized versions.

Anyway, most iconic characters are pretty fleshed out, but J.J. Abrams seems to have found a few nooks and crannies for the characters to showcase in the trailer (if not the movie itself). It looks pretty exciting, but then I am a fan of the original Trek. And, no, I'm not old enough to have seen the original series when it aired, but I am old enough to have seen it in syndication before Star Trek: The Next Generation aired.

Times are tough, for sure, but most of us can still afford to play video games online (I recommend Guild Wars because it has no monthly fee, or Diablo II because it's the most awesome game ever), take a walk, make yummy homemade food from scratch, or see the occasional escapist movie. Life is still pretty cool even when things seem to be crashing down around us. Seeing that trailer and looking forward to the movie reminded me of that.

Sustainability

A few weeks ago, I took one of those on-line "sustainability quizzes". If you've never taken one, it's a series of questions which asks you about your lifestyle and then tells you how many planets it'd take to sustain your life if everyone lived at your level. The idea behind such quizzes is to encourage people to live lower on the hog in order to improve the environment.

This is the second such quiz I have taken and it always turns out that it'd take between 2-3 earths to sustain my lifestyle. Both times, this shocked me because I do not live high on the aforementioned hog. In fact, this year, I was considering my wardrobe and pushing myself to tough out the mild winter with no heavy sweater, no coat, and only 3 long-sleeved shirts. I didn't want to buy new stuff if I could get by with layering what I still have because I didn't want to waste money or resources if it wasn't absolutely necessary.

To be honest, hearing that it'd take 2.8 planets to sustain my lifestyle made me angry. I live in a very small place which uses little energy to heat, cool, and light. In fact, I daresay that few people in developed cultures live in less square foot per person in the household than my husband and I do. I don't shop as recreation, I conserve water and energy, I cook most of my own food from basic ingredients, and I recycle everything possible. I can't compost, but the city does that for Tokyo residents anyway.

After taking the second quiz, I wondered what it is that I'd have to do to require only one planet for my relatively modest and unwasteful lifestyle. Is my coffee, dairy, and chicken consumption really that destructive such that it requires 1.8 more planets than this one to support? I discussed this with the CH and he said that the problem isn't that we are wasteful, but it's rather a matter of math. If everyone on this planet lived as we did, it wouldn't be sustainable. In other words, past a certain point, it's about the number of people, not the position one lives on the hog. If the population keeps ballooning, pretty soon the only way that we'll be able to meet our needs with only one planet will be if we all live in dirt huts, eat rice and beans, and share the same book with our entire community. The resources are finite (or shrinking), but the population just keeps growing so everyone's sliver of the pie keeps getting narrower and narrower. We all have to use less and less as the division keeps whittling down each person's share to an ever smaller amount.

Several months ago, I was reading a blog where a woman wrote a piece about "breeders". She was essentially asking if it was irresponsible for people to have a lot of kids in this day and age and she got a lot of comments from mothers who, of course, said they felt that it was not a concern. One of them said that she had six kids and felt that, if she didn't have a lot of kids who would put a strain on resources and therefore more resources would be available for the rest of the planet, everyone else just would consume more. This sort of attitude seems based in naivete, or willful ignorance, of the seriousness of the problems at hand.

It's pretty clear that it's reached the point where everyone is facing a serious degradation in lifestyle if the entire population does not begin contracting soon. It's not a matter of lowering lifestyles or living with less, but a matter of everyone (and I mean every single person) adopting a standard of living that many would find unacceptable and/or some people dying because there's not enough to go around and they drew the short end of the stick resources-wise. By U.S. standards, much of my current lifestyle is already unacceptable - no car, hanging laundry out to dry, no central air, limited water use, very small living space - and it'd require 2.8 planets for everyone to live at my relatively modest level.

The situation seems pretty hopeless to me because the solution clearly is going to be for no couple to have more than 2 kids for the foreseeable future, and that's not a factor I personally can do anything about. No matter how much I freeze because I question the absolute necessity of new clothes or how much time I spend showering by turning the water off and on to conserve resources or how many winters I shiver through or summers I sweat through, it's not going to be enough. About the greatest thing I can and have done for the planet is to remain childless.

So, I'm buying a sweater and some new clothes. I'm done actively suffering for the planet and debating every purchase as if I were personally responsible for every tree that is cut down and every strip mine that is dug. Though I'm still going to do the best I can not to be wasteful, I see no point in putting myself through any real hardship for a problem to which I'm powerless to control the main contributor.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Bitter Pill I Didn't Have to Swallow

This is hopefully the last page of the "magic English pill" woman saga in my life. I'm happy to say that I never taught her and will never have to teach her again and it again happened without my looking like the "bad guy".

This student was scheduled for a lesson on the 7th of November but canceled because she said she caught a cold. She was rescheduled for yesterday, but the agency called to tell me that she hadn't been in touch with them so they couldn't be sure when she'd ever take the lessons she'd requested, if ever. Their phone message said essentially that she hadn't paid for the lessons yet anyway, so they couldn't really expect much of her.

In the follow-up e-mail from the agency about this student, the referral agent essentially said that he didn't feel she was really all there. He didn't say those words exactly, but he did mention that half her mind was on something concrete and tangible and the other half didn't know what it wanted. He also said that he felt that "normal people" couldn't understand what she was thinking and encouraged me to flat out refuse if she were offered to me by anyone else who didn't know her history with both me and the agent.

So, I'm pleased to report that that particular issue is a weight off my mind. I had reconciled myself to dealing with her and viewing doing so as a challenge to my spirit and teaching skills. However, I'm just as pleased not to have to take on this particular challenge.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Doctor Swag

Among the items are super soft micro cleaning cloths for eyeglasses, tons of ball point pens, a pass case, white board markets, correction tape, cable organizers and a dehydrated dish towel that plumps up to full size once you get it wet.

One of my students is married to a doctor and, on occasion, she has handed off portions of gifts that have been given to her husband. Some of the gifts she shares with me are from patients who give him case-size portions of various food items. She's given me fruit jellies, melons, and dried sweet potato. She's also give me notepads and pens before. A few weeks ago, she also gave me some facial tissues that her husband had been inundated with by companies selling allergy medication.

I mentioned to her that I could make use of the items she gave me and would be glad to take her "cast-offs". Today, she brought a small shopping bag stuffed with the assortment above. All of these items are freebies given to the doctor by various companies that want him to prescribe or recommend their products to patients. While this may look like bribery, I'm guessing it's more about brand name recognition.

One of my other students works for a pharmaceutical company and she spends a lot of her time visiting hospitals, clinics, etc. and hawking her company's wares. A lot of what she's encouraging nurses, doctors, and medical professionals to recommend are nutritional supplements. Her company spends a fair amount of their resources taking beneficial components of naturally occurring substances and extracting them to put into pills, powders or liquids so people can ingest them more efficiently on a regular basis.

After receiving this bag of doctor swag from my student, I couldn't help but wonder just how much her husband receives and how much is wasted. He's a single doctor with a single clinic and the amount of stuff he gets overflows such that he, his wife, her family, and his staff couldn't possibly use it all. My student gave some of it to me, but I'm guessing there is far more piling up in a corner somewhere. The way in which business is done in this way must contribute greatly to the wasting of resources in developed countries. How much oil is used on unwanted pens? How many trees are cut down to make gift boxes for those pens? It's a shame, really, but there's not much to be done about it. Still, I feel a little better knowing that I can either use these things or pass them along to someone else who can.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Caramel Cake


Last year, I made the CH an Elvis cake for his birthday. It was good, but a little weird, so I asked him what special cake he wanted this year. He told me he wanted a caramel cake. I believe I only made one twice in the last 6-8 years, and the original recipe came from a Penzey's spices catalog which has long since been tossed. I searched Penzey's site, but they didn't have this recipe listed so I had to try and recover the recipe (or one like it) somehow.

I have very few cookbooks these days because the whole world of cooking is open to me with a search on the web. Most of the time, that works out pretty well, but not when it comes to certain recipes. Finding a caramel cake recipe, for instance, is very hard because there are many variations and few simple recipes. Those that are simple go too far and have ingredients like "cake mix" and instructions like "make cake as instructed by mix." Also, I didn't want chocolate caramel, cinnamon caramel, apple caramel, banana caramel, or tres leches. I wanted something straightforward with two flavors - cake and caramel.

I don't make cakes from mixes, and even if I wanted to, I couldn't find a good one in Japan without sifting through import shops. Finding a good, plain yellow cake recipe for a cake from scratch is very hard. It's as if everyone figures a plain cake is best produced from a mix or homemade ones are indistinguishable from those made from Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines. I can tell you for a fact that this is not true. Fortunately, some years ago and after some trial and error-based failures with cakes that disappointed (too sweet, too sticky, too flat), I found a good plain cake recipe and had the foresight to print it out and put it in my personal recipe file so I still had the basic cake recipe on hand.

Unfortunately, the caramel part of my old caramel cake recipe was long gone, but I turned up a recipe that seemed to fit the bill. The yellow cake in this recipe is like a pound cake, though not quite so heavy. It's moist, light, and sweet and the best homemade yellow cake I've run across. The caramel is easy to make and requires no exotic ingredients. The cake looks a little funky because you have to poke holes in it to allow the caramel to creep into the cake, but it's very good. I don't even like caramel, but I enjoyed this.


Yellow cake:
  • 2 C. all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/3 C. sugar
  • 1/2 C. shortening (I used "cake margarine/keiki magarin", but you can use Crisco)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 C. milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
Cream the sugar and shortening together. Add eggs, salt, milk and vanilla and beat until thoroughly combined. Sift in the flour and baking powder and beat until the batter is smooth. (Note: my sugar and shortening were lumpy so I took a Braun multi-quick hand mixer to it and it didn't have any bad effect on the result)

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F./175 degrees C. Grease and flour a 9 x 9 baking dish (I used glass) and pour in the batter. Tap the edges to even it out. Bake for about 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Note that your cooking time may vary depending on the type of pan you use. Metal pans will require a shorter cooking time than glass.

Allow the cake to rest in the pan for 15 minutes. Gently loosen the edges and turn it out on a rack for cooling. Allow it to cool for at least 30 minutes before the next stage.



Caramel sauce:

  • 1 1/2 C. brown sugar
  • 4 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1 C. boiling water
  • dash salt
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 2 tbsp. cream
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla
Add the sugar, salt and flour to a heavy bottomed saucepan and mix together well. Add the boiling water and heat over medium heat until it starts to bubble. Turn the heat down a bit and cook for about 5 minutes until thickened. Stir it very often and monitor the heat carefully to make sure it doesn't burn. You want the final result to be slightly thicker than you'd like for the cake because it'll be thinned out a little by the butter, cream and vanilla.

Remove the cooked sauce from the heat and stir in the butter. Once the butter has been completely melted into the sauce, stir in the vanilla and finally the cream. You want the sauce to have cooled a little before adding in the cream, but it shouldn't be cold.



Assembly
:


Take the cooled cake and poke holes into it with a straw or chopsticks. I usually poke the holes closer together at the edges, but you can choose any pattern or number of holes you like.

Carefully pour the sauce over the cake filling in the holes as you go. You'll notice dimples forming as the sauce penetrates the cake. Once you have covered the whole cake once, go back over it and pour more sauce into the dimpled areas. There is plenty of sauce so you shouldn't have any problems totally filling in the holes even if you make quite a few (which I did). Any remaining sauce can be poured onto the center. If you run low on sauce, you can always spoon up the spillover and fill in any dimples.

This cake keeps very well for 2-3 days because it's moist and the sauce keeps it moister than usual. In fact, it is actually better the second day as more of the sauce penetrates into the cake as time goes by.

I think we were fortunate this time around to have both U.S. butter and New Zealand dark brown sugar to use for this. I've made it before with Japanese ingredients and it's good, but Japanese brown sugar isn't as deeply flavored. Also, and I hadn't noticed this until very recently as I haven't had American butter in about 2 decades, American butter is sweeter than Japanese butter. It's not that sugar is added, but rather that they use a different type of cream in U.S. butter. The U.S. butter, incidentally, was imported and sold for a hugely inflated price (about $17 for 2 cups) because of the butter shortage in Japan.

My husband and I didn't buy it. He was given it by a student who picked it up for 100 yen (about a dollar) because it was set to expire too soon. The butter we were given was equivalent to 2 cups of butter and doesn't expire until the end of this month. I'll be sad to finish it off. It's so good.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Most Important Day

I've tried to approach this post from various angles and have written and deleted several paragraphs, but the truth is that some things are nearly impossible to explain in a way that others can relate to. Forty-six years ago today, the person who has transformed my life in more positive ways than I could have conceived of was born. This day is more precious to me than any other because he is more precious to me than anything.

Lots of people say that unconditional love does not exist, but I know it does because I've experienced it and it's nothing short of a miracle. Living with that miracle everyday through my husband is the greatest gift life can give a person. I can't begin to celebrate this day in a way which suits its importance to my life, but I'm going to try.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Mortified

In an earlier post, I mentioned that we nearly made it through the summer without any cockroaches penetrating our inner sanctum. That was on October 19th. I figured that the roach had sneaked in on my clothing which had hung on the line, but I did find it odd that it was crawling high across our white living room wall rather than lurking in the shadows or wedging itself behind furniture. Roaches like to be wedged between two narrow areas so they are touching something on both their tops and bottoms. They don't like being high and in the open.

At the time, I recall thinking that I was glad that it didn't show up in a similar place during one of my lessons as it would be horrible for me to be teaching a student and to have a roach crawl by where a student could see it. I know that people who live in Tokyo are aware of the inevitability of roaches, but I can't help thinking that they'd believe I was a really dirty person or that they couldn't feel comfortable in my apartment if a roach might amble through.

I saw what I hoped was our first and last cockroach of 2008 on October 19. Now that it's November, I figured the likelihood of one showing up was pretty low, until two days ago when one of my worst scenarios played out. Several nights ago as I was teaching a student around 7:20 pm, something dark and high up on my whitish walls caught my eye. A roach was slowly crawling across the wall on the left. When I saw it, it was behind my student, but I believe it made it's way over the wall and out of my field of view.

I don't know if the student saw it once it passed my peripheral field of vision, but I did notice her eyes dart to the left several times (though her head didn't move). Of course, a lot of people look to one side or another while thinking as we naturally look to the side of our brain that we're utilizing while concentrating, and I didn't know if she saw it or if she was just thinking. By the time the lesson ended, it was nowhere to be seen and I figured it had crawled behind the bookshelf that is at the end of that same wall.

Since I didn't want that thing running around after my husband got home as they creep him out rather fiercely (and I'm not too great a fan of them either), I tried to hunt it down. I rocked the bookshelf in the hopes of scaring it out, but it didn't show. I took apart the bookshelf which was chock-a-block with heavy books and pulled it away from the wall, but it wasn't there. I got a flashlight and searched a lot of darkened nooks and crannies including under the bed, behind the sofa, behind the T.V., etc. and I couldn't find it. I was already tired and all of this searching was the last thing I needed. Finally, I gave up, turned off the kitchen light and at that moment it scurried from a dark corner and I nailed it with roach killer.

Though I was mortified to see a roach on my wall during a lesson, its presence as well as that of the other one was educational. It's no coincidence that both of them showed up late in the summer after the air conditioner in the living room was no longer used. Though I've plugged every hole that I know of in the apartment, there is one I can't plug and that's the one's related to the air conditioner itself. My guess is that they are coming through a hole that was made during the unit's installation which is a less attractive route when the AC is used. The reason they are high up on my walls is that that is where the entry point is. I don't know if they can crawl through the tubing which water drips through or if it's some other hole, but clearly I'm going to have to try and lock off this point of entry when the air conditioner is not in use if I want to avoid them with more certainty.

As for my student, I'm hoping she wasn't freaked if she saw it. She's a pretty level-headed person, and a nurse, so she's seen some pretty gross stuff. If she shows up next week, I'll be in the clear. If not, well, I'll know what happened.